William Blake’s America – A Prophecy – 1

We’ve been running transcription of the 1989 Corso-Ginsberg interviews and will be returning to them in a couple of week time, but, today, we go back a decade (February 15, 1979) and return to Allen’s teachings of, and commentary on, the prophetic books of William Blake (lectures delivered that year to the students at the Naropa Institute (Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado.

The recording (a new tape) begins in media res with Allen discoursing on Blake’s revolutionary impulse, centering on his revolutionary text, America – A Prophecy.

AG: …(In May 1793, the British government had passed) a law “against diverse, wicked, and seditious writings.” And Blake in June 1793 says in his little journal, “I say I shan’t live five years, and if I live one it’ll be a wonder.”  June, 1793.  Five years later, (in his annotations on Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bibl(1797)). he was to write, “To defend the Bible in this year, 1798, would cost a man his life. The beast and the whore rule without control.”

So.. actually, he was going through a lot of political and personal crisis when he did it. And so, this is his way of putting it out in symbols, both the revolutionary fervor that he felt, (or (his) perceptions), as well as the worries he felt about his own position – that is to say, fear of counter-revolutionary terror in England, fear of persecution, as well as wonder if his revolutionary impulse had been pure enough, or if a revolutionary impulse was realistic, or a faith.  In other words, all the conflicts that he would have with revolution, counter-revolution, and terror within the revolution, are all symbolized in this book (America – A Prophecy”), beginning in the “Preludium”, which is written after the book was done. At a time when.. It’s sort of a continuation of (Jean Jacques) Rousseaus statement from The Social Contract, which was published in 1762, by the way (fourteen years before the American Revolution). Rousseau’s Social Contract (said) “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” [in the original French – l’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers]  So this is the book of man breaking out.  Man, now.  Just as in the last book (Visions of the Daughters of Albion”) (where) Theotormon didn’t break out but Oothoon did, now the spirit of revolution is born and the masculine effort to break free and liberate nature is going to be outlined in here.

The background of some of this, according to Erdman,is the Ossianic (sic) poems of  of (James) Macpherson) – those were the large, bombastic, Ginsberg-ian rhetorical poetries of a century before, that much influenced Blake toward (the) heroic style, (as well as Rousseau’s ideas –  )as well as a poem by Thomas Gray called “The Descent of Odin”, which has some parallel features, but is more kitsch. It’s less philosophically penetrant, but Blake adapted some of Thomas Gray’s “Descent of Odin”, some of the names.  I think “Oothoon” comes from that, also).

Student: Did he illustrate that?

AG:  I don’t think he illustrated “The Descent of Odin”, but if anybody finds any illustrations … he illustrated Thomas Gray’s poems…

Student: Uh-huh.

AG:  … and that may be one of them, but who’s going to be doing Gray?

Student: Me.

AG: Yeah.  Could you check out whether Thomas Gray’s “Descent of Odin” is one of the things that Blake illustrated?  This will be the usefulness of everybody spreading out and scouting the territory, intellectually.   

[Editorial note – Blake did indeed provide illustrations for “The Descent of Odin” – see for example here, here, here and here]

Actually, if you…  there is some interesting background on that, just detail.  Orc’s red eyes come from Ossian, the heroes in Ossian.  The Norse Eddasupplied material that Gray turned into English poetry and then Blake picked up on the Edda material.  That was the Norwegian epic material that Gray had chewed over for English.

And in the “Descent of Odin” there is an unnamed prophet made awakened by Gray’s Odin in “realms of night”.. “mother of a giant brood”, a “fierce embrace” in Western caves  (“in the caverns of the West”),  a “wondrous boy”..”Lok has burst his tenfold chain.. “comes from Gray’s “Descent of Odin.”  And Mark Schorer, incidentally, if anybody’s going to look that up.. who’s going to look up Schorer? – Schorer, apparently, has a lot of that on page four-oh-five (in a footnote) in his book (William Blake – The Politics of Vision). I’ve never looked it up.

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and continuing until approximately four-and-three-quarter minutes in]

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